WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A near miss for the local public school district has sharpened calls for changes in the way the commonwealth assesses COVID-19 spread at the local level.
Steven Miller, a Williams College mathematics professor and member of the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee, has long been critical of the red-yellow-green-gray system the Department of Public Health created this summer to categorize municipalities.
As it happens, Williamstown was categorized as yellow, meaning it had an averaged daily COVID-19 case rate of between four and eight (per 100,000 people) for two weeks at the end of September.
That meant the first classification of October, released on Oct. 7, could have had a serious impact
on the Mount Greylock Regional School District. According to the memorandum
of agreement negotiated between the School Committee and the district's teachers union, three straight weeks in the yellow for either of the district's member towns (Williamstown and Lanseborough) triggers a return to fully remote instruction.
There are other triggers, including test positivity rates of 3 percent or more in either of the member towns or in Berkshire County as a whole, but the use of the DPH map and color-coding system has drawn criticism from several quarters.
Miller, who is teaching a class this fall titled "Mathematics of Pandemics and Risk-Analysis of Responses," sent a five-page letter to the state's commissioner of education outlining in detail what he called the "a fatal flaw in the color-coding scheme that is hurting small communities with high proactive testing rates."
He offered a short synopsis of his objections Tuesday during a meeting of the School Committee's Education Subcommittee, which he chairs.
"The yellow doesn't reflect what we want it to reflect," Miller said.
He noted that the state already has modified its metrics for COVID-19 transmission and that there are other municipalities calling for a change that, they argue, misrepresents conditions in small communities like Williamstown, a town of about 7,700.
A big problem in the state color-code system is that it does not take into account the fact that a large percentage of that 7.700 -- the students, faculty and staff at Williams College -- undergo regular COVID-19 tests. Through Wednesday, that testing program has yielded five positive results out of 22,051 tests conducted, a positivity rate of .02 percent.
Miller's letter told the commissioner of education the commonwealth should be rewarding municipalities for increased testing instead of punishing them for rigorous testing programs that turn up the occasional positive result.
"Since the only information they use is the number of cases, this can't be a complete picture," Miller said Tuesday. "That's what's being used to try to come up with a color-coded scheme that more accurately reflects what's going on.
"To put things in extreme cases, imagine that you only test the symptomatic people in your town, and you have five people who are positive in 100 tests. Or you could test 100 percent of the population, 8,000 people, and you have five people come back positive. Both of those would receive the same color classification from the state, but they are completely different situations. In one, we don't have to extrapolate, we don't have to guess how prevalent COVID is in the community. We know. We've tested 100 percent."
Mount Greylock Interim Superintendent Robert Putnam Tuesday said he forwarded Miller's concerns to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which referred Putnam to DPH. The district has not gotten a reply from state health officials.
Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday was asked about the functionality of the state's community level COVID-19 data reporting mechanism. Specifically, he was pressed on whether it hurts small communities or ones with high-spread institutional COVID-19 testing programs.
Baker said the state always intended the map to be one tool that residents can use to look at risks from the novel coronavirus in their area. And he indicated no inclination to redesign the classification system at this point.
"With respect to things like jails, long-term care facilities, colleges -- isolated spots -- I think our view is, we'll put the data out there as it stands and then we're happy to work with communities around decision-making or messaging associated with whatever their particular circumstance or situation might be," Baker said during a news conference. "Everybody knows that Middleton [a 'red' community in Essex County] is about the jail. Just as I think most people know when there's a particular element, people know that, and it gets talked about, and that's appropriate.
"But for us to start saying, 'We're not going to call this one that or this one that or this one that,' and making what we consider to be value judgments on the data -- on some level, I think that would create more confusion than it would create clarity. … I don't think it makes sense for us to change a program model for 351 cities and towns for one or two outliers. I don't think that is the right way to do it."
Miller's push to get the commonwealth to change its modeling has some support in Berkshire County.
At last week's meeting of the Williamstown Board of Health, Dr. Win Stuebner told his colleagues that Dr. Daniel Doyle of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission's Berkshire Public Health Alliance was interested in talking to Miller about his criticisms of the state metrics.
Stuebner called Miller's critique "very thoughtful" and echoed his concern that the state's map does not give a true picture of conditions on the ground.
"What has to be taken into account is where these cases are in town," Stuebner said. "We were 'yellow' primarily because of a few cases at Williams College and the Pine Cobble cohort. If we had not been allowed to continue hybrid learning, it would be because of one case in the community, one at Williams and all the Pine Cobble cohort is back to school and out of quarantine and isolation.
"In my view, from a public health standpoint, there would not be any reason for the schools to go back to remote learning. Unfortunately … the district is locked into an agreement that simplifies things to a much greater extent than it should be."
Putnam, the interim schools superintendent, echoed that thought during Tuesday's Education Subcommittee meeting, when he interrupted Miller to point out that the yellow or red "trigger" is embedded into a memorandum of agreement negotiated between the district and the Mount Greylock Educators Association and approved by the School Committee.
"I have to pose that this or any sort of discussion is more theoretical than anything," Putnam said. "Essentially, we have an agreement to use the metrics, of which this particular map is part of."
It is unclear whether the union would be interested in reopening the MOA at this point, particularly in light of the current state of labor relations in the Mount Greylock district.
In the last six months: The School Committee issued a statement saying it was "disappointed
" with the agreement it signed in April with MGEA to start remote instruction. In August, the committee shredded
a back-to-school plan for September that Putnam had worked on with the union, and Miller pushed for the extraordinary step of holding negotiations
with the union in a public meeting. This month, committee member Al Terranova, in a discussion about athletic fields
, made a thinly veiled reference to negotiations where the School Committee made all the concessions and the other side "keeps moving the goalpost."
Letter on Color Metrics to Commissioner Riley by iBerkshires.com on Scribd